Streaming Media Makes Business Sense

SAN MATEO (07/03/2000) - Demonstrating capabilities beyond those of a vehicle for MTV to break the latest Britney Spears video, streaming media is becoming a way for more and more midsize and large companies to cut expenses and improve the value and availability of information across the enterprise.

Rather than shuffle employees between multiple locations for presentations, sales meetings, and professional development, companies are delivering a single presentation broadcast from a centralized point across the extended enterprise, saving time and money. As an added dividend, on-demand access augments these programs by making recorded presentations readily available for replay by anyone unable to attend, extending the benefit of the original effort.

However, the most compelling reason to consider deploying streaming media is the immediate ROI that streaming solutions provide. Consider the cost benefits of reducing travel expenditures, long-distance phone charges, and road show field-office presentations as well as the savings incurred by eliminating the need for expensive satellite video links or multisession seminars and training camps. The cost advantages of using a more efficient communication mechanism begin to add up.

Streaming media brings other nonquantifiable gains over traditional communications or training procedures such as the ability to better engage your audience, bolster corporate culture, enhance professional development, and provide more timely, efficient access to information -- serving to improve productivity and decision making throughout the enterprise.

The tools used to produce content have become so easy to master that corporate users can become immediately productive in contributing content across the organization.

All told, streaming media represents a very good, cost-effective mechanism for improving delivery of, and access to, information across the enterprise, with implementation costs starting at less than $10 per employee.

Infrastructure requirements

Delivering a comprehensive, integrated solution for streaming media brings with it a number of technical challenges. Your company will require a platform that is easy to administer, integrates with existing security schemes, and allows for growth and robust scalability in the face of future expansions.

A few of the demands imposed include upgrading network infrastructure to accommodate for increased bandwidth requirements and beefing up your server and storage farms to manage increased workloads.

Organizations interested in broadcasting live programming to more than a handful of employees will also want to enable their routers for multicasting.

As opposed to unicast service, which delivers a single, separate content stream to each requesting user, and broadcast service, which floods a network with content to all users, multicast service combines the privacy of unicast with the efficiency of broadcast by targeting a single stream directly to requesting users. As a result, multicast makes optimal use of network bandwidth, allowing thousands to view a single data stream, and delivers better quality to the end-user.

Although multicast is more difficult to set up and deploy than unicast, particularly if you need to tunnel a unicast stream to separate multicast islands across a WAN, the benefits are dramatic when serving simultaneous content to more than several thousand clients. Because most modern day routers support multicasting, the added cost for many organizations will only involve updating router software and memory.

The final expenditure in the process comes by way of multimedia-enabling the client-side desktop. Whether you plan to deliver streaming media to each desktop or cut implementation costs by limiting deployment to conference rooms or kiosk setups, each machine that receives broadcasts must be configured with an audio card and media player software. The good news is that the most popular client-side media players run on minimal system configurations and are available for free distribution.

The contenders

Although cost-saving solutions could be jury-rigged using a Web server to deliver audio and video content, you're going to want to make the investment in setting up a streaming media server. Because streaming media would place an additional strain on your Web servers, new hardware would quickly become a necessity anyway. And media servers, rather than delivering content via HTTP/TCP, take advantage of optimized protocols such as UDP (User Datagram Protocol) or RTSP (Real Time Streaming Protocol) for faster stream delivery.

They also leverage error-checking methods that reduce overall bandwidth requirements.

Which media server should you choose? Today's market presents several options, but few are worthy of enterprise consideration.

Apple Computer Inc.'s QuickTime Streaming Server provides good content delivery, standards-based support, and easy administration but comes up short in the areas of scalability, transport mechanisms, and content encoding tools.

Another option, Emblaze from GEO Interactive Media Group, is a platform-neutral solution that doesn't require a proprietary player. Unfortunately, Emblaze's proprietary codec (compressor-decompressor) is somewhat inefficient, and Emblaze still taxes Web server resources when serving content.

At the end of the day, it's no surprise the two top dogs among streaming media platforms are RealSystem G2 Enterprise Edition from RealNetworks Inc. and Windows Media Technologies from Microsoft Corp. And as these products have matured, the distinctions between them have started to blur.

RealSystem G2 Enterprise

Both Microsoft and RealNetworks deliver well-polished, easy-to-use server platforms along with tools for graphical authoring, network monitoring, multiple bit-rate encoding, and throttling concurrent streaming thresholds.

Both solutions also provide collaborative integration with products such as Lotus Notes and easy incorporation of presentation tools such as Microsoft PowerPoint.

Although the hardware requirements for RealSystem G2 and Windows Media Technologies run close to equal, RealSystem G2 costs significantly more. In fact, the biggest stumbling block to the RealNetworks solution is its price.

Unlike Microsoft, which builds media services capabilities into its Windows NT and Windows 2000 server architecture, RealNetworks demands per-stream licensing that adds roughly $10,000 per server for 500 users to the price tag. And support costs for RealSystem G2, starting at $3,800, are substantially greater than Microsoft's $200-per-incident rate.

Furthermore, with each RealSystem G2 license block costing $10 per user and no license pooling between servers, this can quickly deter a larger organization looking to deploy multiple servers across an extended enterprise.

However, to its advantage the RealSystem G2 platform, both server and clients, runs on a greater number of operating systems, including Linux, Solaris, Mac, and Windows, improving options for future integration.

Although both vendors integrate well with Windows-based monitoring features such as Event Manager and Performance Monitor, I found that RealSystem G2's Web-based, cross-platform administration and Java-based performance monitor provide all the capabilities I needed to remotely access a distributed topology. Reports on bandwidth consumption, CPU and memory usage, and number of connections as well as the capability of effecting configuration changes for security and multicasting via Web browser make RealSystem G2 easier to administer remotely than is Windows Media Technologies.

Unfortunately, RealSystem G2 requires an additional splitter product to redistribute live multicasting across a WAN, and it introduces security issues when using Windows NT authentication with RTSP streams.

On the upside, RealSystem G2 does provide player-and identification-based authentication to restrict access to predefined content classes, and it relies on accepted industry standards, including SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language) and RTSP, that will help foster interoperability with developing technologies in the future.

Windows Media Technologies

Having been a longtime fan and supporter of RealNetworks products, it came as a surprise to find the marked improvements in Windows Media Technologies, which not only make this platform a pleasure to work with but also serve to bolster its effectiveness and reliability.

Because Microsoft's Media Services are included with the Windows 2000 server and are available as a free download for Windows NT, there are no additional costs beyond the operating system to getting started with multicast or unicast content delivery. Windows Media Tools and the Windows Media Player are also available for free online or by requesting the Media Technologies JumpStart CD.

I found that Windows Media Technologies' wizard-based setups make for easy integration and ongoing administration, and the wizards for setting up multicasting and monitoring performance were real time-savers.

However, the most important difference between RealSystem G2 Enterprise and Windows Media Technologies, besides their pricing, was performance. I put both media servers to the test on Windows machines running dual 550MHz Pentium III processors and loaded with 512MB of RAM to test live and on-demand content streaming at various bandwidths.

I found that RealNetworks' SureStream technology performed well, allowing automatic adjustments in stream rate to optimize for network speed and conditions and providing faster recovery during stress conditions. But it was the Microsoft solution that delivered the most consistently reliable throughput with the least amount of packet loss, both in on-demand and live broadcasts.

Microsoft's Intelligent Streaming did a very good job of detecting network conditions and optimizing quality, which was superb, and its multithreaded capabilities allowed it to take a clear advantage on a dual-processor system.

Authoring and development

For media authoring, both RealSystem G2 and Windows Media Technologies are extremely easy to use, so costs of training in-house content developers should be negligible. Template presets can be constructed by IT staff that, along with batch encoding options, simplify the authoring process for less experienced end-users. Once set up, users can contribute content without requiring IT participation.

Both RealSystem G2 and Windows Media Technologies now enable multiple bit rates to be encoded into a single file, reducing the time necessary to produce content and easing catalog maintenance.

Although RealSystems G2 and Windows Media Technologies delivered comparable performance at low-end voice recording, or 16Kbps audio encoding, I found that at higher-quality thresholds Microsoft's solution delivered superior performance and sound quality at a fraction of the file size and bit rate for both audio and video.

Choosing your solution

All told, both RealNetworks and Microsoft deliver a high-quality streaming media product, although the total cost of ownership of Windows Media Technologies is clearly lower. Both products proved easy to set up and administer, but I found that Microsoft provided more thorough documentation, tutorials, and server-optimization recommendations, helping to springboard implementation efforts.

While assessing your needs, be sure to keep an eye on each vendor's Web site.

Even as we are going to press, RealNetworks is announcing the beta version of RealSystem 8. Boasting MP3 streaming features and Macromedia Flash 4 support, RealSystem 8 is sure to offer appeal in interactive or portal scenarios and for corporate training. RealSystem 8 would be a good choice for organizations invested in Macromedia technology, .

By employing streaming technologies, your organization can save travel and training expenses and improve the quality of communication across the enterprise. With some easy math and solid requirement planning, the right solution for your needs will become evident.

Senior Analyst James R. Borck (james_borck@infoworld.com) has endured the nascency of streaming media during numerous deployment efforts.

THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD

Windows Media Technologies 4.1

Business Case: Media server capabilities are already built in to the Windows 2000 and Windows NT OSes, reducing startup costs. And support for a greater number of simultaneous streams and better tunneling help reduce the overall cost of operation. But this Windows-only solution limits your scalability options by preventing the use of less expensively licensed platforms.

Technology Case: Windows organizations will find the media player already bundled in desktop software, reducing the deployment effort. Encoding improvements reduce the time previously required to develop content, and codecs maintain optimum quality at smaller file sizes.

Pros:

+ Media capabilities built in to Windows OS+ Now supports multiple bandwidth encoding+ Good quality codecs+ Per-incident technical supportCons:

- Windows-only platform

- Lacks browser-based administration

Cost: Built in to Windows 2000 and Windows NTPlatform(s): Windows 2000, Windows NTMicrosoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.; (800) 426-9400; www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmediaTHE BOTTOM LINE: GOODRealSystem G2 Enterprise EditionBusiness Case: Although the client-side player is freely distributed, media server-licensing costs make this streaming media platform a more costly proposition than competing solutions. Support for more OSes than competitors opens cost-effective options for deployment.

Technology Case: RealSystem G2 supports multibandwidth encoding to reduce production overhead. Easy-to-master tools for encoding and live streaming make working with this solution a cinch. Web-based management eases ongoing administration efforts, particularly across multiplatform installations.

Pros:

+ Easy installation

+ Foolproof development tools

+ Browserlike client interface

+ Macromedia Flash support

Cons:

- Expensive server licensing

- Expensive support

Cost: Starts at $9,995 per 500 streams, with license upgrades costing $4,998 per 500 streams; support starts at $3,800Platform(s): Windows, Mac, Solaris, Linux; RealNetworks Inc., Seattle; (800) 632-8920; www.real.com.

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